The Incredible Story of Photocopiers

Chester Carlson was born on the 8th February 1906 in Seattle. The son of a barber who developed arthritis quite early on in Chester’s life and a mother who later contracted tuberculosis, Chester’s early years were not easy – from 14 years old he was the main family breadwinner. But Chester was able to make his way into junior college and went on to earn a Bachelor Degree in Science from California’s Institute of Technology in 1930. He left university in the Great Depression and sent out a staggering 82 job applications, receiving just two replies and not a single job offer. Chester eventually found work at Bell Laboratories in New York City at just $35/week but was very soon laid off, as the economic situation deteriorated further. Realising he was unlikely to find the job he wanted, Carlson settled for work with the electronics firm PR Mallory where he was eventually promoted to a managerial position in Mallory’s patent department. At night school he took a course in patent law.

Working at Mallory, Chester found that there were never enough copies of patents around. To produce more, the choice was either to have each photographed or laboriously write each out each one by hand. Carlson knew there had to be a better solution out there and so decided to hit the books at New York public library. Carlson spent many months poring through tomes of scientific articles. Photography was ruled-out – it had already been explored to the nth degree. Carlson turned his attention to the relatively unexplored territory of photoconductivity, pioneered by Hungarian physicist, Pal Selengi (now often referred to as ‘The Father of Photocopiers’). It had been observed that when light hit the surface of certain materials, their conductivity increased. Carlson had a flash of inspiration, a ‘eureka’ moment. If an image were projected onto a photoconductive surface, current would only flow in those areas that light hit upon.

Carlson set up a lab in his Jackson Heights Apartment which is where he would come to establish the basic principles of electro-photography… When Carlson’s wife finally had enough, his lab was relocated to the back of his mother-in-law’s beauty salon. Otto Kornei, an unemployed German physicist also joined him at this point. One day Otto took a plate, covered it with sulphur, writing ’10-22-38 Astoria’ on a microscope slide in India ink. The room was darkened and the sulphur was rubbed with a handkerchief to give it a charge. The slide was then placed on top and put under a light for a few seconds. The slide was then removed and the surface covered with lycopodium powder. With one breath, the lycopodium powder was blown off. And there it was – a perfect mirror image ’10-22-38 Astoria’. The trick was preserving the image. Carlson took wax paper and heated it over the powder. The wax cooled around the sulphur spores and when it was peeled away, the first ever photocopy had been made…. But as yet there was no photocopier.

Kornei, feeling slightly at a loss with the project at this stage, left Carlson, finding a job with IBM while Carlson went on the hunt for funding. Between 1939 and 1944, him and his idea were turned down by around twenty large corporations. In the meanwhile, Carlson continued his work with PR Mallory which occasionally took him to the Battelle Memorial Institute a not-for-profit organisation which invested in research. During one visit in 1944, Carlson mentioned his several patents on a new reproduction process. Battelle executives expressed an interest and before long a royalty sharing agreement was signed with Carlson getting 40% of any future proceeds.